The Dilemma of the Term “World SF”

Editorial: The Dilemma of the Term World SF

Charles Tan

[cross-posted from Bibliophile Stalker]

When I signed up for the World SF News Blog, I didn’t know what I was getting into, not in terms of workload, but what exactly is the scope of the term. If we were to take the term literally, that would entail covering SF all over the world (including America)–and that’s a daunting task indeed. But that’s honestly not what people think when we mention the term “World SF”. Instead, it’s a term that usually refers to minorities. The fact that we’re using English already says something (despite the plurality of languages and dialects all over the world). Not that I begrudge English, mind you, and there’s no other language that immediately comes to mind which is as prevalent as English (sorry Firefly fans, I don’t think Mandarin cuts it–at least not at this point in time).

When we speak of World SF, our target audience tends to be Westerners (or Anglophonic readers, depending on your definition). Why is this the case? Well, again, the very language we use is English. Another factor is their monopoly of the traditional publishing industry. For example, a lot of countries will have access to books publish in either America or Europe, but those same countries won’t have convenient access to each others books. Except in rare occasions, you won’t see books published in the Philippines, Singapore, or India at your local bookstore. Basically, if anyone can tap into the resources of the big Western publishers, they’ll have access to most of the world.

And then we come to the actual ambiguity: What is World SF? Lavie Tidhar and I have different definitions of the term. To some, this is defined as non-Anglo Saxon writers (yes, Anglo Saxons are also part of the world but this is a movement reacting against them being the center) but to me, that sounds very vague. Does that exclude English-speaking European countries? Australia? Canada? (And while Australia and Canada are better off compared to some third-world countries, they still need promoting.)

Let’s say we narrow it down to a specific countries such as the USA. Do we exclude all of its writers, even the ones who’ve migrated there from other countries: Vera Nazarian, Ekaterina Sedia, Vandana Singh? Or how about writers of color born in the US but are ethnically non-Anglophonic such as Nnedi Okorafor? Are they included or excluded?

How about Anglophone writers who moved to other countries such as Richard Calder and Benjamin Rosenbaum? Or Anglophone authors who write about other cultures such as Ian McDonald and Geoff Ryman?

Do we use nationality or ethnicity as a basis? Lauren Beukes for example has European ancestry but she’s African through and through. And personally, I’m pure Chinese but consider myself Filipino, both in nationality and culture. Where does that put me, if the question was geared more towards Philippine SF as opposed to World SF?

There are no right or wrong answers here. But each person will have a different stance in this. Yes in one question, no in another. For example, I know Indians who’d welcome Ian McDonald with open arms for writing about India convincingly. I also know others who’ll take offense. (Similarly, some Filipinos like Starship Troopers because Robert Heinlein’s protagonist was Filipino. Me, a bit ambivalent, especially since Rico didn’t really have anything particularly Filipino to set him apart from other white heroes.) Some people will consider the Carl Brandon Society as World SF, others not. It’s a complex check-list and the nuances actually matter.

The only thing I’m certain is that World SF needs to be promoted, and I try to accommodate that.


4 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Term “World SF”

  1. A very interesting article. I’ve been thinking the same things in terms of defining world literature. I’m a British born woman of Jamaican descent, but am I excluded from World SF mix because I grew up in the US? I think so and I think that I’m okay with that. There are clearly more opportunities open to me here in the US as a SF writer then say– a SF writer in Botswana. And the World SF title is basically a marketing tag that helps a group of writers that could easily be overlooked. If this helps a talent group of writers get noticed, I’m all for it. Besides, I’m a bit tired of fitting into every minority group. It’s good to be excluded from the club once in a while.

  2. I’m curious to see how your opinion differs from Lavie Tidhar 🙂 Maybe you can go into more detail?

    For me, I tend to think of World SF in the same way as I do World Music. I guess it’s mainstream pop culture vs what is not? For me, mainstream isn’t necessarily anglo-saxon. In the case of music, rock n roll, jazz, hip-hop were all born from the African American experience.

    I don’t think it necessarily goes by nationality either. For example, Lisa Ono is from Brazil/Japan, Shakira is from Columbia, Savage Garden is from Australia, but I consider them all mainstream artistes.

    I think perhaps, if you’re looking at very localised styles and content, that makes it World SF? I would also include writing in a non-English language. Using the same reasoning for music, I really love Japanese pop music although I only understand it as translation. So while it’s mainstream in its own country, it’s world music to me. Lastly, I would add unique niche movements as well, e.g. Japanese visual kei, which you don’t see in the mainstream.

    So going by my sketchy definitions, I think, yes, World SF can exist in the US and UK, depending on what the author chooses to represent. Interesting topic!

  3. Wouldn’t it be simpler to define World SF as simply the underdog SF? If you’re not the underdog and you’re getting published by big U.S. companies, then you’re not world SF.
    It’s like how normal people talk about science fiction. They say there’s no good SF. Why? Because if a book’s great, then it’s not SF.

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